As Republicans gain control, face of Oklahoma Democrats changes 

Democratic Congressman Dan Boren sits behind a desk with two bucks mounted on wooden plaques peering over each of his shoulders. The sleeves of his button-down shirt are rolled almost to his elbows, and like everyone milling about outside, he is sweaty. 


Boren has just come inside to this air-conditioned oasis after making a speech to commemorate the opening of a new Democratic headquarters in Durant, a community deep in the heart of Southeast Oklahoma. He braved the 100-degree, blast-furnace heat to speak to a gathering of local Democrats, many clad in boots and cowboy hats, because these supporters make up the base of the state's Democratic Party. 

And make no mistake about it: The Democratic Party is strong here. This is not, however, President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Ten feet from the desk, in the main hallway of Boren's new Durant headquarters, the congressman beams from a portrait, his arm draped around President George W. Bush. A photo with the current president is nowhere to be found.

"Barack Obama is very unpopular," said Boren, who represents Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District. "He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse." 

Boren points out that he does support some of Obama's initiatives, like the economic stimulus package. He has voted for Obama-supported bills 81 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study. But despite this, he said the president is too liberal.

"It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle," he said. "Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don't remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who's pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans."

Obviously, at least some Southeast Oklahoma Democrats don't toe the party line decreed from the Oval Office. So who are these people, and what do they stand for? 

State Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, represents District 6 in Southeast Oklahoma. He said Democrats there are "probably a bit more conservative" than their urban counterparts. 

They don't prioritize some of the same issues as national Democrats, Gumm said. One of the issues he pointed out is Obama's desire to close Guantanamo Bay.  Others include policies that would increase the cost of living.

"You know," Gumm said, "I think there is some concern and some skepticism toward the president and his policies."

So for a candidate to get elected in a local race in the region, he or she must represent the more conservative nature of the voters, something both Boren and Gumm, among with others in Southeast Oklahoma, say they do well.

The results speak for themselves. As state government slowly tilted toward Republican control, Southeast Oklahoma remains a bastion of Democratic power, bolted to a rock-hard foundation of Depression-era, WPA-inspired party identification.

However, term limits instituted in 1990 diminished the power of incumbency and pushed out old Democratic names. That wave moved from the more democratically responsive House to the state Senate two years later. The GOP now controls both state houses. 

Gumm called the region the Oklahoma Democratic Party's last stronghold in the state. The six state Senate districts that make up the region " running from Carter County east and Haskell County south " are all represented by Democrats. Winning the Democratic primary in the region is basically the same as winning the election, he said.

Boren, Oklahoma's only Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, was first elected to the U.S. House in 2004. Since then, he has won in a landslide, garnering at least 65 percent of the vote, according to the State Election Board.

But this Democratic stronghold may be losing some clout in the near future. 

Following the 2010 census, the Oklahoma Legislature, with the approval of the newly elected governor, will redistrict the congressional districts, as well as the state House and Senate districts. 

Keith Gaddie is a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, and he was an expert witness for the state Legislature in the 2002 redistricting trial. 

Gaddie said no matter who wins the gubernatorial race in 2010 " a Republican or a Democrat " the five congressional districts will probably stay about the same. Republicans will remain in control of the Legislature, but he said they will have to be satisfied with controlling four of the state's five congressional seats. 

"There's no scenario that exists where you can create a district that beats Dan Boren and also keeps the other four districts sufficiently Republican," he said.

Therefore, it's in the GOP's best interest to keep the congressional districts basically as they are now, meaning Boren's seat is safe.

The local districts are another story for the Democratic Party in rural Southeast Oklahoma. Gaddie said the biggest issue facing the Legislature is what to do with rural seats.

"Rural areas in Oklahoma are losing population, not doing well, and the population centers are moving into the doughnuts around Tulsa and Oklahoma City," he said. "But those areas don't have political power commensurate with their votes, so you need to be moving seats in there, but where are you going to go get them?"

The Legislature's answer may be to purge a couple seats from the western part of the state and at least one from Southeast Oklahoma, both rural areas. 

Gumm said he thinks Oklahomans should be worried about diminishing the rural voice at the Capitol, a voice that he said is already too soft for some lawmakers to hear. He said business from rural Oklahomans is integral to the economic success of the metro areas.

"How goes rural Oklahoma will determine, to a large degree, how Oklahoma goes," he said. 

But it appears that the redistricting may be inevitable, and when it occurs, it could change the politics of the Oklahoma Democratic Party as well as make the GOP stronger than it already is in the state.

Gaddie said much of the population growth is occurring in Republican strongholds like Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but the Democrats may actually be able to pick up a few seats in the urban areas.

"So you could see some different types of Democrats getting elected up in this part of the state," he said. "Which means that what you're going to see happening is, as the number of Democratic lawmakers from the southeast become fewer and fewer, and Democratic lawmakers increasingly come from Oklahoma and Tulsa County and Cleveland County, and, you know, Rogers and Wagoner and places like that, you get a more liberal Democratic legislative caucus."

This caucus may be more aligned with Obama and the national Democratic Party. But that may be just fine with some of the Oklahoma Democratic Party's up and coming leadership, comprised of young organizers with a desire to win.

"Something that we didn't see here 13, 14 years ago is really bright, talented kids who are interested in politics are Democrats. You know, 13, 14 years ago, they were all Republicans," Gaddie said. 

He said one of these organizers is Todd Goodman, the chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. Goodman, a 36-year-old who was raised in Oklahoma City, took over the position in May, looking to revive a flatlining state party.

He said his goal is to make Oklahoma Democrats proud of their party again, a party that has had its share of financial troubles as well as image issues. Goodman said he is doing that by bringing new life to the party, focusing on framing its message better, fund-raising more and targeting specific seats in upcoming elections.

The problem, Gaddie said, is that the party is unsure of who its candidates will be.

"We've got a good idea of who the organizers are. The candidates are the question mark," he said.

For now, the GOP still controls both houses, and the Democrats remain strong in Southeast Oklahoma. But as the old, Blue Dog Democrats give way to a newer, more urbanized generation, the party may be forced to change and adapt.

Back in the mercifully cool Durant office, Boren makes a prediction based on what he's seen in Southeast Oklahoma.

"Every year, we've lost Democratic self-identification," he said. "Our registration didn't used to go down. Republicans are gaining. If we don't become a party of the middle or centrists and can sell, what's going to happen is you're going to see Tulsa and Oklahoma City become more Democratic, and the rural areas are going to become more Republican. It's almost a flip of what it used to be." "Will Holland

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on Oklahoma's two major political parties.

Reporting contributed by Grant Slater.

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